This winter, when I needed a weekend escape with my two high-energy 5-year-olds, I did something few parents would do — I headed for an old college haunt. Back in the day, it was the last place I would have pictured myself vacationing with my children. But now it fit the bill. I was looking for an authentic, old-school getaway — a place that was affordable, family-friendly and within reasonable driving distance from Washington, but with enough edge to keep me engaged, too.
So we packed up the car and drove to Asbury Park, N.J. In November, no less.
The city’s glistening beach, flanked by a wide, mile-and-a-quarter-long boardwalk, is its main draw in nice weather. But a host of new kid-friendly attractions — in combination with some now-iconic favorites — have made it a popular all-season playground for families.
When I went to Rutgers in the early ’90s, Asbury was the place to go to hear live music. My college photo albums are filled with friends hanging around the legendary dive bar and rock club the Stone Pony and posing in front of Madam Marie’s fortunetelling booth, the Temple of Knowledge — immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen, who famously got his start here. In other pictures, we’re outside the majestic circa-1928 Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre, seagulls perched atop its sculptures of mermaids and sailors.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and the seaside city with the storied music scene has undergone a major renaissance, marked by a surge in development and an influx of millennial creatives and entrepreneurs. There is now a slew of year-round boardwalk restaurants, such as Pop’s Garage, a taco joint that serves standout dishes like sweet corn rolled in cotija, alongside older favorites such as Wonder Bar, which doubles as a pulsing live music venue. Retail has followed suit, with arrivals like the midcentury modern furniture store Flux Modern, whose clients reportedly include the set designers for “The Deuce” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” In the same vein, the city now has an eclectic calendar of year-round public events that include Catsbury, which bills itself as the biggest cat convention on the East Coast, and an Irish Viking parade through downtown.
Other changes are cultural. The city has a relatively new street-art scene, with towering murals my kids loved to look for — when they found one, they’d jump up and down and cheer. Their favorite was the 20-foot mermaid, painted by local artist Mike “Porkchop” LaVallee, on the side of the Sunset Pavilion. In it, a mermaid looks at the Atlantic through a telescope as a seal frolics near her fin.
At the center of it all is the Asbury Hotel, the boutique spot where my kids and I began our wintertime visit. When it opened in 2016, housed in a once-derelict Salvation Army building, it was the city’s first new hotel in 50 years. With its affordable offseason rates, it has become a road-trip go-to after visits to my mother in neighboring Freehold or sister in New York City. (It’s an easy hour-and-change train ride to Manhattan, with a station that’s walkable from the beach.) The first time my family checked in, the front desk was welcoming to my then-toddlers, assembling fabric playhouses for our room on the spot.
It’s also a destination unto itself. When the weather permits, the Asbury Hotel shows movies, complete with lawn chairs and a popcorn machine. On one visit, a screening of “Frozen” on the hotel roof, with a sweeping view of the Atlantic and a well-stocked bar, made both the kids and me happy. In the winter months, guests can skate at the hotel’s outdoor rink and relax beside a fire pit — or roast marshmallows from the s’mores kits sold from a food truck parked nearby.
Inside, a hallway leads to the newly refurbished Asbury Lanes — in my day, the grungy and faded Fast Lanes bowling alley. When we wandered in on Sunday morning, it was hosting the Little Rockers Band, who dress in “Wizard of Oz” costumes and often perform at noon instead of midnight. My kids didn’t want to leave. Luckily, the Asbury Lanes Diner — with miraculously good chicken fingers on the kids’ menu — was on-site. (On Memorial Day, iStar, the developer behind the Asbury Hotel, will open the Asbury Ocean Club Surfside Resort and Residences, a 17-story boardwalk hotel and condo complex.)
During our trip, it was often warm enough to let the kids run free on the boardwalk. It felt serene without the summer crowds, and it was fun to watch as brave surfers in wet suits launched their boards into the foamy winter waves.
A short distance from the boardwalk is Asbury Park’s artsy downtown, where we found Hot Sand, a kid-centered glass-blowing studio. Young visitors can make glass replicas of their hands or feet, which both my kids did, and found hilarious, while I made a sun catcher out of glass tiles. They also loved going to the Asbury Park Bazaar, which runs annually from November until Christmas and is styled after a German Christmas market, and Roller Hall, a pop-up roller-skating rink in the convention center that played all Jersey artists — and David Bowie, of course.
We started our days at the Asbury Hotel’s coffee shop, which, fortunately, served good, strong coffee: The kids woke up at 6 a.m. because of the sunrise over the Atlantic. To power up, there were local doughnuts from Purple Glaze, a mother-son team who craft worth-every-calorie treats with Jersey spins such as the Holey Cannoli, with chocolate icing, mini chocolate chips and cannoli filling. Their doughnuts are so deliciously indulgent — slightly crispy on the outside but fluffy on the inside — that we had to cut ourselves off.
There was no shortage of good food outside the hotel, either. Restaurants like the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, which has a 6,000-square-foot indoor hall with communal tables, more than 90 beers and food my kids love: potato pancakes with apple sauce and sour cream, and the Bavarian Brezel, a soft pretzel with mustard, Liptauer cheese and gherkins. In the winter, the restaurant features rooftop “igloos,” translucent domes with space heaters and table service.
But our favorite restaurant on this trip was Porta, a massive industrial Neapolitan pizzeria that’s dominated by a wood-fire oven and hung with fairy lights indoors and out. My son swatted my fork away from a steaming plate of pasta and meatballs; I had to order another one because he refused to share.
Shops selling vintage clothes, artisanal soaps and onesies featuring the Boss and Bon Jovi line Asbury’s Main Street. There are tons of quirky boutiques that will strike a chord with Generation X parents — if you’re looking for Cure posters or secondhand Doc Martens, you’re in luck. My daughter loved going into the boardwalk dress shop Bettie’s Bombshells, which was offering customers a chance to try on Red Hot Red, Marilyn Monroe’s favorite lipstick circa 1959 and the store’s best seller. The staff even entertained her while I tried on a reproduction 1940s dress with red polka dots.
The Convention Hall’s Grand Arcade, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was another favorite family destination. The once-shuttered building is now open year-round and houses an artisan marketplace, where Gabby and Lincoln tried on mermaid outfits and flip-flops while I drank another round of gourmet coffee at the Asbury Park Roastery and bought organic, locally made soap at one of my all-time favorite shops, Big Spoon Little Spoon Naturals.
But for the kids, Asbury’s main draw is the Silverball Museum , with its row after row of vintage pinball machines, some dating to the 1930s. Its huge collection of arcade games, which visitors are invited to play, encompasses ’80s favorites like Pac-Man and Skee-Ball as well. The arcade’s tall stools are perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, and there are coin-operated rides out front, including two cars, a small train and a purple dinosaur.
As I watched my kids play the retro pinball machines, I felt happy for Asbury, a place that lived for so long only in my memories. Now it would be in my children’s memories, too.
The Asbury Hotel
210 Fifth Ave.
Trendy hotel offers amenities such as rooftop yoga and on-site bowling. Double rooms start at $115 per night; rates vary seasonally. Through April 30, guests who book three nights in a row get a fourth night free (book with code WINTER19).
911 Kingsley St.
Atmospheric pizzeria with picnic benches and bocce in warmer weather. Neapolitan pizzas start at $14.
1000 Ocean Ave.
At this boardwalk taqueria, tacos — one for $3.50 or mix and match two for $6 — are served on soft corn tortillas, topped with shredded lettuce, onion and cilantro.
The Stone Pony
913 Ocean Ave.
Legendary rock venue hosts nationally known bands; the Boss is known to pop by and jam now and then.
1000 Ocean Ave.
Hands-on collection of retro pinball machines and ’80s arcade games for all ages.